What

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pronoun (3rd person singular inanimate), (pre-)determiner / adjective.

Pronoun

In both English and French, it is considered quite lax to write:

  • You want what?
  • Tu veux quoi?

In school we are taught to say:

  • What does she want? // What do they want?
  •    wədə(z/ʊ)
  • Qu'est-ce qu'elle veut? // Que veulent-elles?
  •     k(esk)(ə)

There are two parts to what. The first part (wh-) is found in who, how, why, when, etc. and represents an "information gap" (a lack of info), the second (-at) is found in that and represents an object at a certain distance from the speaker. This object can also be an object of discourse, and in some cases functions as a grammatical subject:

  1. What matters is that we keep trying.
    Ce qui importe c'est que nous continuons d'essayer.
  2. What's strange is that I didn't get what I had ordered
    Ce qui est bizarre, c'est que je n'ai pas eu ce que j'avais commandé.

(In these last two examples, "what" is referred to as a fused relative pronoun (it is a pronoun which "functions as its own antecedent"), and in the case of #1 its role is simply to hold the place for a long subject to be stated later (that we keep trying). This structure is known as a WH-cleft or pseudocleft sentence (very useful despite its ugly name, as we shall see in the next section). In the first series of examples "what" was, on the other hand, an interrogative pronoun. In the following examples, it is called an interrogative indirect pronoun.) These names are included only for completeness.

  • They asked what we were doing what .
  • She imagined what the other girls were doing what.

what I know about wh-cleft sentences is this...

Rhetorically and rhythmically, wh-clefts allow the speaker to focus attention on a topic.

In the case of Aloe Blacc's 2010 post-financial meltdown hit "I Need a Dollar" (♬ ♬ ♬ ), the dollar is the topic that the singer keeps alive in the listener's imagination. Some extracts from the song and related sentences:

  • I need a dollar.
  • What I need is a dollar; a dollar is what I need.
  • "I need a dollar. A dollar, that's what I need."
  • That's what I'm talking about.
  • (that refers back to a topic previously pointed out in the discussion. Here, based on context that refers to "a dollar" -- or maybe to pseudo-cleft structures ^^)
  • "What I want is for someone to help me" Cf. "All I want is is for someone to help me"

what    Subject + Verb    ( is / was )    Topic.         pseudo-cleft

Topic    ( is / was )      what    Subject + Verb.         inverted pseudo-cleft

Some more examples:

  • What I want is a day off!    ⇨    A day off is what I want.
  • What we finally agreed on was a more flexible delivery date.    ⇨    A more flexible delivery date was what we finally agreed on.
  • What they said was that they still have no idea where our package is!
  • I want a pizza. ⇨ What I want is a pizza. ⇨ A pizza is what I want.
  • I need more time. ⇨ What I need is more time. ⇨ More time is what I need.
  • I can't believe they they lost our package. ⇨ What I can't believe is that they lost our package. ⇨ That they lost our package is what I can't believe.
  • It was a scam1. ⇨ What it was was a scam. ⇨ A scam was what it was.

1 fr. arnaque


all, when, why, where, who, how can all be used in this way:

  • Why we need another programmer is so that we can free you up for this new project.
  • How we usually fix the problem is by rebooting.
  • Where we usually go is to the deli downstairs.
  • Who I really miss is Mireille.

Interrogative Determiner / Adjective

In modern English grammar this is generally called an interrogative determiner.
In traditional French & Latin grammar it is referred to as an interrogative adjective.

  1. What time is it?
  2. What kind of camera did she buy?
  3. What color is their car?

This last sentence can be compared to:

  • Which color do you like best?

where there is a limited number of colors possible. For example, you may be asking for a friend to help you chose between three pairs of boots: black, brown and bordeaux...

On the other hand, if you ask a more general question, "what" is used instead of "which".

  • What is your favorite color?

Content Clauses / Reported speech

The questions from the last selection can all become "content clauses". Note that since the content is no longer in the form of a question the word order changes from Verb + Subject to Subject + Verb

  1. I wonder what time it is.    |     She asked what time it was.
  2. I forget what kind of camera she bought.    |     She told us what kind of camera she'd bought.
  3. I know what color their car is.

Predeterminer / Intensifier

  • What a mess!
    Quel bazar!
  • What a hassle!
    Quel bazar! // Quelle horreur!
  • What a surprise!